Author Maria Semple recently visited Philadelphia to discuss her entertaining new novel, Today Will Be Different, in which the hapless protagonist strives to muscle her way through everything that has been holding her back. “I thought it was a comic premise to have somebody having to try so hard even though she’s setting the bar so low,” Semple told the audience gathered last Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
She said the book’s inception began early one morning when she was still in a “dreamlike state,” and wrote on a yellow legal pad its opening lines, which Semple read at the Free Library. “…Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe…” The audience laughed. “I know ladies,” Semple said. “That’s funny, right?”
But the sudden emergence of an illustrated memoir that the protagonist, Eleanor Flood, penned years earlier, disrupts her resolutions to be “different” by confronting her with the past she has tried to escape. The novel follows Eleanor with tripping intensity through 24-hours of her mixed-up Seattle life and through flashbacks to New Orleans and Aspen, as she inspects her damaged relationships with her precocious son, hand-surgeon husband and unstable sister.
As Eleanor stumbles into new self-discoveries and peers at the possibility of a brighter future, readers wonder about their own self-destructive tendencies. Semple’s darkly comic narrative stretches the boundaries of believability as Eleanor veers toward a precipice. But readers become invested in this middle-aged misfit, despite how irritating she can be.
Eleanor is flawed yet likeable in her self-deprecation, especially when she makes suddenly relatable statements, such as, “I’m happy in retrospect.” Despite Semple’s characters sometimes seeming two dimensional, she uses them to relay insights in surprising ways. When Eleanor asks her husband if he hates her sister, for instance, he answers, “You don’t hate rattlesnakes; you avoid them.” And during a flashback to a time she injured her wrist, Eleanor remarks, “Pain I’m good with. It’s discomfort I can’t handle.” Moments like these sprinkled throughout the novel make readers nod in recognition.
An entertaining journey
Plus, Semple’s cynical sense of fun is infectious. When a bystander asks if Eleanor’s son has a father, she retorts, “Of course he has a father. What do you think this is?” Eleanor indignantly demands of a publisher, “You’re just going to eat my advance?” The woman “helpfully” answers, “I suppose we could sue you,” making us laugh. Readers will also enjoy what has become almost a trope in Semple’s work — how she takes digs at the provincial nature of Seattle, her and her character’s adopted town. At one point, Eleanor observes, for example, that she’s “never seen a city of pedestrians less invested in crossing the street.”
For the most part, Semple’s inventive way of personifying the world and emotions keeps readers engaged. “My lungs were butterfly wings,” Eleanor says. A few pages later, she describes New York as “…you self-absorbed crack whore, with your status-obsessed, edgy, darting eyes, your choked sidewalks, your cancerously reproducing starchitect-designed Prada stores….”
This novel, Semple’s third, is ultimately less satisfying than the bestselling Where’d You Go, Bernadette. But Today Will Be Different moves swiftly and is worth the effort — especially when complemented by a talk from Semple, who was as engaging in person as she is on the page. “Today will be different,” Semple read out loud at the Free Library, just as Eleanor concludes, leaving readers with a note of optimism and the sense that we, too, might dream of greater fulfillment.